The New York Times and all the knees that are fit to print

Photo by Keith Kissel: 3D printer making a plastic turtle

Most of the time I’m just happy if I can get a document from my computer to print out on the nearby printer, so I’m always amazed to read about people using what are essentially modified versions of these printers to create 3D models of coffee cups, guitars, even ears. That’s why a recent New York Times article about a CIRM-funded researcher, Dr. Darryl D’Lima of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, who is using a 3D printer to try and create some spare knee cartilage caught my eye.

Dr. D’Lima got more than $3 million from the stem cell agency to research the potential use of stem cells in cartilage regeneration and treating osteoarthritis (you can read about that here)

The 3D printer project wasn’t part of that particular grant but the research the money funded clearly helped pave the way for the experiment.

The article does a great job of exploring how this kind of approach – using 3D printers to create all manner of materials – is becoming increasingly common in the life sciences, but it also points out that it is a long way from producing living tissue that acts and behaves the way that the real stuff does.

The reporter quotes Brian Derby, a researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK, saying:

“Nobody who has any credibility claims they can print organs, or believes in their heart of hearts that that will happen in the next 20 years.”

Dr. D’Lima admits there are a lot of obstacles to overcome but says when it comes to making cartilage he is cautiously optimistic.

“Printing a whole heart or a whole bladder is glamorous and exciting, but cartilage might be the low-hanging fruit to get 3-D printing into the clinic.”

If it works it would be a gift to the millions of people who currently undergo knee surgery every year to repair the damage caused by worn-out cartilage or from people suffering from osteoarthritis. But if we have learned anything over the years it is that stories like this make for great headlines, but often there are years and years of hard work before they make real therapies.

Kevin McCormack

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